Most of us didn’t arrive here at Autostraddle as fully formed writers and editors. We got our start on the social sites of our teenage years, or in fan forums, or in fan fiction. The internet was a wildly different place ten years ago! So hop in the wayback machine and journey with us through our well-spent and misspent youths on the World Wide Web. And then share your first online communities in the comments!
Creatrix Tiara, Staff Writer, Savage Garden Fandom, 1998-2001
I was in a bunch of other online communities ever since I got online in 1995/6; the first one I really remember was this kids’ one where I signed up to be a reviewer and got free books. The first big community I could really remember though was the Savage Garden online fandom, especially those that wrote fanfic. The official Sony messageboards for the band were thriving and there were a lot of email lists and fansites with a ton of fandom community projects, such as the Savage Garden Street Team, multiple scrapbooks, and a massive effort to translate Crash and Burn into as many languages as possible – we were gunning for the world record. I was one of the most prolific writers and hosted a site with my own fanfic, fanfic written by others, and various bits and pieces – from a Did You Notice section to a Choose Your Own Adventure game. I found the fandom to be extremely creative, very supportive (there were the occasional dramas like anywhere but it was pretty good otherwise) and a ton of fun. As an isolated minority kid growing up in the middle of almost nowhere, the fandom were often my closest friends, who often accepted me for who I was when no one else would and gave me my much-needed creative outlet.
Alaina, Staff Writer, MySpace/Specifically the gay girls obsessed with Tracie Thoms after seeing RENT, Early 2000s
I was obsessed with RENT and it’s a hot mess and I try not to think about it too often because it is that embarrassing to me as an adult. It was the first time I met a group of gay girls who were (on the internet) loud and proud and loved loving girls. I found my first girlfriend through that community (who was from Texas and now I’m here; my life feels very full circle lately). I learned how to write from that community. I realized the internet is big and broad and vast and probably write for this very website because of that obsession. So while I will never willingly talk in too much detail about that time in my life, I will be grateful for it (EVEN THOUGH I WAS SUCH AN EMBARRASSING TEEN!!!!!!!)
Mey, Staff Writer, Purevolume, 2006-2009
I got on myspace around the same time, but it was Purevolume, an alternative music based social website where I really found myself. Right after high school, I became Emo, and while I was into the music, especially the pop-emo genre, I was mainly into the community so I could be a guy and talk about my feelings, cry, dye my hair and grow it out, wear girl jeans, use eyeliner and wear girl’s band shirts.This was my way of being a girl before I could be a girl, and Purevolume was the place where I found emo bands and emo friends and emo trends. I even started my own emo-folk band, Rebel the Fox, and I was a weird Christian Emo Guy with a lot of bad political opinions and bad taste in music. But hey, I got to wear makeup and women’s clothes, so I think overall it was worth it. Also I started listening to Lady Gaga before she released The Fame, but not as early as Stef did. Guys, this is the page for my band, I’m the tall one in the picture with the hanky around my neck. Everything I wrote on this page is embarrassing.
Vanessa, Community Editor, Teen Open Diary, early 2000s
Okay I cannot believe I’m about to admit this, but I was definitely part of a celebrity role playing community in my early middle school days. I don’t think I realized it was a role playing community at the time — I just thought it was totally normal. I discovered Teen Open Diary because the New York Times wrote a thing about Open Diary and how they’d made an offshoot for teens and my mom showed it to me, I think. I made a “real” account and used to post awful poetry and little blurbs about my day and I made friends with a girl who made “dolls” and “blends” which were basically cute little graphic design images and she made a bunch for me for free but then I think it turned out she catfished all of us and wasn’t who she said she was but ANYWAY.
None of that is the truly exciting/horrifying part. Somehow, while meandering around the vast expanse of Teen Open Diary, I discovered a celebrity role play situation. It was very well established: tons and tons of accounts with celeb names, like “Carly Pope” and “Seth Green” and “Freddie Prinze Jr.” Basically you’d pick your celeb, create an account with lots of ’s and ~’s around their name, and then you’d post cute photos of that celeb on your diary page and try to date other celebs. I picked Leslie Bibb (~~Leslie_Bibb~*~, to be exact, I believe) because I thought she was really pretty and I was obsessed with the TV show Popular. I ended up “dating” David Boreanaz!
That meant we’d comment on each other’s posts and post photos of “each other” on our diary pages. We exchanged AIM screen names and we’d chat every day after school. I guess I was kind of dating this dude except I didn’t know anything about him and also I was really only excited that Leslie was dating David. I have no idea when or how I ended this, and I’m not even sure why I started it. I eventually graduated to just having my own personal Open Diary, then switched over to LiveJournal, which was filled with its own weird and terrible drama because everyone in my high school theater department had one and behaved in the exact way you’d expect high school theater kids to act on the internet – but never again did I impersonate a celebrity or pretend to date another human impersonating another celebrity. RIP, ~~Leslie_Bibb~~, and major apologies to The Actual Leslie Bibb for weirdly pretending to be you in a celebrity role playing game when I was 12.
Rachel, Managing Editor, Open Diary, early 2000s
Until reading Vanessa’s contribution above, I have literally never heard another person acknowledge that Open Diary existed that I did not know primarily through Open Diary. It felt like I had maybe imagined it; it was close enough to Livejournal and to Xanga that that’s where I feel like most people ended up. I think maybe that was the appeal of Open Diary for me, that no one I went to school with seemed to be on it — I wanted to be part of an internet social network, just not with anyone I actually ever knew. It met all my needs at the time in that I could wildly overshare in a longform format, frequently about how I definitely wasn’t gay!!, practice my burgeoning basic HTML skills to add glitter text and scrolling marquees, and also form weirdly intimate online friendships that would continue over AIM. I was close with some dude from Portugal, an older man in Connecticut who was in retrospect very creepy, and a girl a few years older than me one state over who would turn into one of my first confusing ambiguous not-quite-platonic relationships.
We went from commenting on each other’s melodramatic diary entries to taking the train to visit each other and watched Imagine Me and You in her basement bedroom, and at parties she would lock herself in the bathroom and call me. I’m not in touch with her anymore but we’re Facebook friends and I think she might be part of some personal wellness pyramid scheme now. Recently I got an email from the Open Diary admins saying that they were bringing the site back online, and you could “reclaim” your old diary — I was tempted, but definitely no longer have the AOL email address I was using or the password, and am only about 80% sure I’m even remembering my username right. I’ll never forget my purple-and-white theme heavily featuring Comic Sans, though!
A.E. Osworth, Staff Writer, this weird Harry Potter roleplaying forum and nope, I definitely cannot remember the name because I have a memory like a wiffle ball, 2000-2002ish I think?
I don’t remember nearly anything useful about this website. But I remember I was in middle school I think? It was a Harry Potter forum where you made a character (couldn’t be in the books, you had to apply to play a book character) and sorted your character into a house and, using the power of good ole text storytelling, you roleplayed with other human people the experience of attending Hogwarts. The only identifying characteristics of this community that I remember are that a) one of the moderators was named Laska Snape and b) I played a Ravenclaw named Olivia Orville. And it was my first foray into roleplaying AND ALSO writing fiction as a daily practice, so wowee, that wound up being pretty influential, huh?
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Staff Writer, The WB message boards, 2005-2006ish
Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember a time before I existed online—which maybe sounds a bit Black Mirror-y, but it’s true! Online communities have been a huuuuuge part of my life for so long. Aside from dabbling in a few AOL chatrooms for like three seconds until I got scared because everyone was talking about SEX, the very first online community I entered was the now defunct WB message boards. My username was PiprLoreleiClark. Yes, as in Piper Halliwell from Charmed, Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls (which I indeed spelled incorrectly), and Clark Kent from Smallville. Those were my three main fandoms at the time, though I was most active in the Charmed forums, where I unknowingly interacted with someone who I then became really good friends with via tumblr like five years later?
Even the internet can be a small world. I sadly don’t have any screenshots from this now nonexistent site, but I can tell you that I ran a personal forum on it called PiprLoreleiClark’s Place (PLCP), where my WB friends could all hang out and do extremely dorky shit like type orbs in every time we logged on and orbs out when we were logging off. My parents remained pretty oblivious to my participation in these forums, but just about every day after middle school, I logged on and nerded out. Some other online communities I joined in middle school and the first couple years of high school were Mugglenet (duh), the message boards for a Sirius-XM political radio show called POTUS (why?), and Xanga. I had a Myspace, too, and the last background I can remember having was of Dr. Lisa Cuddy from House M.D.. Eventually, I joined tumblr, where I found my true internet home and made lasting friendships.
Heather Hogan, Senior Editor, Chamber of Secrets forums, 2002-2005
The Chamber of Secrets was the official forum of Mugglenet.com, which was my prefered Harry Potter fansite in the early 2000s before I switched my allegiance to The Leaky Cauldron because I liked the Leakycast podcast more than the Mugglecast podcast because it had two women on it. There were two kinds of people in the Harry Potter forums in the Golden Age: shippers and people who wanted to speculate about the future of the series by examining and reexamining the already published books in exhilarating detail. I was one of those second people. I loved reading and reading these dang books, digging into them like sacred texts and explaining repeatedly that no Crookshanks was not Mundungus Fletcher’s Animagus — despite the fact that JKR called both of them “ginger-haired” and “bandy-legged” — because, remember, Crookshanks brushed up against Harry’s legs under the table at Grimmauld Place while Mundungus was in the room! I loved debating what was and wasn’t canon. I loved talking about what this alliterative naming convention meant for this family and what such-and-such Latin root word taught us about the true power of that spell. I honestly don’t feel like I wasted a single minute in those forums, even when I was being a pedantic little asshole, telling people to go read the forum rules because they were BREAKING THEM!I learned so much about debate and arguing my points well in writing and it was a catalyst for so much more reading. Harry Potter fandom was smart, smart, smart. And I’m sorry, but yes: that fandom at that time — between books and before Twitter — was truly a little bit magical.
Laura M, Staff Writer, Fanfiction.net, 1999-2003ish
I spent a lot of time reading and writing fanfiction as a wayward youth. My preferred fandoms to read were His Dark Materials (for requiting Lyra and Will’s unrequited love), Harry Potter (for PG-13 unusual pairings and the smutty beyond), and V.C. Andrews (…even though I hadn’t actually ever read any V.C. Andrews? I liked the EXTREME DRAMA and endlessly descriptive prose that the writers in that fandom employed.). What I liked most, though, was writing — a little Lord of the Rings fic, but primarily Protector of the Small. I loved writing lengthy author notes at the top and seeing replies back in the comments. And then I’d click through to their pages, read their pieces, and engage and obsess over the minute details of their work. I had favorite writers and favorite readers (who were definitely individually distinct at the time, but I can’t remember the details now). It was glorious! The writing was super terrible! It didn’t matter! And now I’m here.
Erin, Staff Writer, TV Without Pity, 2004ish-2007ish
Besides the occasional “general” AOL chatroom where I’d pop in as a 6th grader with many great ideas and thoughts and be like “hey what’s everybody doing” to a bunch of strangers, or blog post about Stacy London from What Not to Wear or some shit for all of my seven Myspace friends to read, I’d never really gotten into forums or an interactive online community as a pre-teen/teen. Always just sort of shoutin’ into the void! But in college I began to religiously consume a website called TV Without Pity, which at the time was this comedy driven collection of TV recaps, blogs, vlogs, and pop culture pieces. It was perfect. I was obsessed! In particular there was this comedy duo who had a video series called Beth & Val where they’d answer questions people sent in, and I was such a stan that I downloaded their videos from youtube and put them on my iPod to watch over and over. Bless that time.
Valerie Anne, Staff Writer, AOL Buffy Role Playing???, 1999-2002ish
When I was probably too young to be watching Buffy and almost definitely too young to be wandering around the internet alone, I was doing both with a fiery passion. Looking for more Buffy content online, I somehow found Buffy role playing chatrooms. It was a win-win-win for me; I got to pretend to be someone other than me, I got to do some creative (and boy were we creative) writing, and I got to talk about the Buffyverse with someone, something I couldn’t do with my judgey peers. Plus I got to kiss the girls I secretly wanted to kiss, and it wasn’t laughed at or frowned upon and no one told us we were going to hell. I’m not sure I talked to many people outside that chat room, and I don’t even remember if I talked to the same people within, but it felt like a safe space to be me…which is ironic, since I was usually pretending to be somebody else.
Molly Priddy, Staff Writer, The Hairpin, 2009-2013
I didn’t get involved in online communities until I got my first job (sorry, boss) and had to sit in front of a computer for multiple hours each day. I loved the Hairpin, and the commenting there was hilarious and smart and quick. I commented under the name I’m Right On Top Of That, Rose, and eventually made friends in the comment sections. But still, I wasn’t sure if this “internet friendship” thing was the real deal and I made a gmail account specifically to chat with them on a new level but also in a way that didn’t reveal my true identity. Hahahahahah eventually I loosened up and even went to Austin, Texas to visit a Hairpinner! Those relationships translated over to the comment section on The Toast, and from there, I made Twitter friends and even editorial connections.
Raquel Breternitz, Staff Writer, Xanga, 2008?-2014
This has actually been something that’s taken me a long time to be okay with sharing, for unknown reasons of deep shame. Regardless, one of the most embarrassing facts about me, in my life, is that I spent years cultivating a strange sort of pseudo-celebrity (or Xangalebrity, as they called it) on this site, mostly from being a favorite pet of some of the biggest bloggers. Part of this involved daily blogging, as one would expect, including a large amount of self-deprecating selfies; part would involve long commenting-jags to increase traffic (and friendships); and most importantly, part would involve making secret blogs to work through my serious issues with my faith and my ~ budding (bi-)sexuality ~ and secretly flirting with Xangans I thought were cute. The most embarrassing moment, of this entire dark period of my life, was when I ran for “Miss Xangamerica” — basically, our stupid, warped version of a pageant. I made a Mondrian-inspired dress of the Xanga logo, y’all. I wish I could find photos. (A google search reminded me of other questionable “contests” I was in: Prettiest Eyes on Xanga, Xanga Rulers, in which I got to be Vice-President, and Miss Xanga Asia, which I helped judge?? I have no memory of this.)
Apologies that the only screenshot I could find is from wayback machine, so none of my truly special styling, but you get some choice image names + a description of my first Pride featuring me falling for a girl dressed as Bowie, calling myself “heteroflexible” and “not being a part of the LGBT community.” Lol baby Raquel, you are so gaaaaay.
Anyway, on the plus side, Xanga cemented in me a lifelong love of writing, and some of the friends I made on the site I’ve since met, and kept still — including a couple who met on the site, moved across countries for each other, and are now married with an insta-famous dog! Brave new world.
Stef Schwartz, Vapid Fluff Editor, Garbage Mailing List “Trash-talk,” 1996ish-2005ish
Back in the Early Days of the Internet, you couldn’t just google things – I found information by being a detail-oriented creep, or just by blind luck. When I fell in love with a band called Garbage and (implausibly) decided that I was going to be Shirley Manson when I grew up, I went hunting for as much information as I could possibly find. I happened upon a bunch of fan sites and even looked into learning HTML and staking out a Geocities address so I could start my own (It was called Everything Garbage and it was amazing, you’re welcome). Someone turned me onto the fan-driven email list Trash-talk and I signed up immediately. I was 12 or 13 years old and almost definitely had no business associating with other people anywhere, but I found a community of like-minded weirdos and stuck around for a very long time. We shared remixes, b-sides, photos from shows, set lists, guitar tabs, information about upcoming releases and thoughts about the band, but I also became real-life friends with fans all over the world. Some of those people became my extended family, and we’d meet up whenever we traveled for shows; sometimes we even traveled together. When I went to what was supposed to be the last-ever US Garbage show in Vegas in 2005, we not only found each other, we spent the night celebrating that band as a goddamn family. It goes without saying that a lot of us grew up to be queer, a fact that had mysteriously not occurred to most of us in the late 90s.
I was a big believer in fan sites and fan communities, still am. I dabbled in some other bands’ fan communities over time, bands I developed both major and minor obsessions with (some better than others). There was a small amount of crossover between those communities and a lot of my closest friendships grew from these places. For a weird, angry kid with very few friends in her actual school, it was comforting to be able to find community online, to share enthusiasm for things I was into and also learn about other music I might not have encountered otherwise. The landscape of the internet has changed a lot since then; I guess if I were an angsty teenager now I’d probably be into some weird YouTube shit. I am ever grateful I did not grow up in a world where YouTube existed.
Alexis, Staff Writer, Tumblr, 2011-forever
One of my best friends helped me make a Tumblr in the school library our senior year of high school. They told me all they did was talk to boys on it and I was like, this has nothing to do with me. But! I stayed on it because I had homework to do and that site was specifically not it and so I had to figure out how to dig myself even deeper into the not-homework I needed to do. Thankfully, I put in Glee in the search engine and the world of femslash and gayness was opened unto me. I wasn’t really in an online community until I joined Self Care after R*** (SCaR) as a volunteer administrator, but it was through Tumblr and so I’m counting it. SCaR was one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of, it gave me tools to learn more about trauma and to help others do the same. Tumblr in general has been great because I’ve gotten so many more book, music, movie, and TV recommendations and made more friends to scream about gayness than I could ever imagine.
Reneice, Staff Writer, The Sims Online, 2002
I cannot believe I’m putting this out there for the world to see, but I had a very brief but intense obsession with The Sims Online when it first came out. I was also a rabid Sims player in general but having the ability to run around the web digitally interacting with other nerds like me was more than my little heart could handle. It also very quickly became more than any middle schooler could/should handle cause the platform was naturally full of creeps so I swiftly lost interest and went back to playing in my own, safe, non-predatory little world. No surprise the entire thing was disbanded a few years later.
Carolyn Yates, NSFW Editor and Literary Editor, Fanfiction.net But Just The Harry Potter Parts
Aside from the sex chat rooms I frequented only at ages it was deeply inappropriate for me to do so, I spent a lot of time losing myself in elaborately bad, lengthy, dragging Harry Potter fanfiction. My favourites were the ones where Hermione and Snape got together or where Harry and Draco got together, but ideally both. If Remus and Lupin got married in the background at some point that was even better. I also spent some time writing an intentionally awful Snape/Dobby/Giant Squid love triangle short story because sometimes you have to make your own fun.
KaeLyn, Staff Writer, AOL Chat Rooms and ICQ and AIM, 1997-2005
My parents were teachers and my mom used to bring her classroom computer (singular) home in the summers so we could play with it. We were early computer adopters and when home computers became available, they splurged on a Macintosh—yes, it was called a Macintosh—the whole word. Thus, I was one of the first of my peers to venture into the world of AOL chat rooms (A/S/L?), where I met many inappropriate people and developed my first internet friends who I called “pen pals” for lack of a better word when we started emailing each other daily. Adults everywhere were freaking out about internet predators, so the whole thing of developing an online friendship with a stranger felt totally risky and exciting.
This branched over into ICQ messaging and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) as those programs became available. My whole identity in college was predicated on the coolness of my AIM profile. I spent hours every day reading people’s witty AIM away messages and checking their profiles which were the number one way to assess someone’s weird/awesome factor. You didn’t leave your dorm room without updating your AIM away message, ever. I distinctly remember a person who I had a crush on complimenting me on my AIM profile when we first met IRL. I took it as the highest praise. Oh, and I had a quote from RENT in rainbow colored text in my profile, which was probably my earliest pride flagging.
Riese, Editor in Chief – Diaryland (2000 – 2002) / Livejournal (2002-2005) / Blogger (2005 – 2010)
I know I’ve mentioned three things here instead of one but each kinda feeds in to the other — I’d never really been part of any message board or commenting community, unless you count pretending to be a hot 18-year-old lingerie model in topic-free AOL Chat rooms 101 in 1994/1995, which functioned as spaces for A/S/L checks and subsequently, jumping off points for private chats (read: cybersex). I’m not very good at commenting and I think I always felt strongly that my talents lay in creating communities, not being part of them. In 2000, my friend Jake told me about Diaryland, which he said was where you could write a public journal ‘cause everybody secretly wants people to read their diary. But basically I knew I was writing for Jake and his friend Fred and maybe two or three other people who I knew in some way in real life. It was where I wrote about my feelings of being scared and weird and sick at the university of michigan, surrounded by normies. Then Jake told me about LIVEJOURNAL, which he said was like Diaryland but your friends could post “comments” on your entries! What’s weird about it was how it enhanced relationships with a lot of people I knew from here or there (a girl I’d crushed on in high school, a co-worker at the macaroni grill, a boy i had an affair with while he was pledging my then-boyfriend’s fraternity), creating this sort of small community of humans who i shared my life with and vice-versa, connected by our mutual interest in a shared platform. I later moved a chunk of those entries onto tumblr. Then in 2006 I learned that if you wanted to be a Real Writer, you needed a blog. So I bid farewell to Livejournal and started my blog, which started the community that eventually brought us here.
Abeni, Staff Writer, Xanga (2000-2006ish), MySpace (200X-2008ish)
I made my first blog in 6th grade, age 12 or 13, on Xanga. I blogged every day, and so did all the other kids in our Silicon Valley suburb (my hometown is also the hometown of Apple computer; we were pretty tech-friendly). A bunch of us followed each other and honestly it wasn’t much of a bigger social network than just folks I actually knew in real life. As I got older, I started interacting with people around the web, until Tumblr came out and I jumped ship in 2007. Interestingly, I didn’t join Twitter back then as it seemed dumb and I was a “real writer” who needed plenty of space for my musings (I actually didn’t join Twitter until A-Camp 2017 and honestly it kinda changed my life and jumpstarted my actual writing career, who knew?).
This thread inspired me to go on the Wayback Machine and find my old Xanga and I did! Unfortunately I could only find one page, from 2008, which was easily my 7th or 8th different Xanga (I can’t remember any of the usernames otherwise I’d look on Wayback to see if they’re archived too!). Also unfortunately, Xanga has shut down basically so all of my old blogs and writing from when I was an angsty teen are lost to the ether (forever?). I was a Christian boy in my blogging days, which is a trip to look at. It’s interesting reading through a few 2008 posts because that’s when I first started pulling away from religion (it was, incidentally, around that time that I first met out queer people, in college).
I also found my old MySpace and even the MySpace I made for the music I recorded in high school! Unfortunately they don’t seem to play anymore 🙁 Maybe that’s for the best.